Editor's Note: This is an exclusive five-part interview by Debra Campbell
No interview with C. Thomas Howell would be complete without touching on his iconic role in The Outsiders as Ponyboy Curtis. The movie was based on a controversial book by the same name written by American writer S. E. Hinton. The book was published in 1967 when Hinton was still a student in school.
The Outsiders focuses on the classic teen coming of age conflict of differing turfs with the battle between ‘The Socials’ and ‘The Greasers.’ That is why today the book is still a recommended curriculum for many middle schools and high schools around the country.
Francis Ford Coppola directed the movie and with it emerged a tremendous cast of young actors who became household names like Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Diane Lane and of course C. Thomas Howell.
Debra Campbell: Tom when you look back at filming The Outsiders what comes to mind? What was the impact of the movie on you?
C. Thomas Howell: I feel The Outsiders was an important part of all of our lives. Most of the actors including myself were under 20 except for Patrick Swayze who was 28. He was definitely the big brother on and off the set. We were all like a family. There was a strong fraternity forged on that movie that continues today. It was a life shaping experience for all of us.
Everyone in that film went on to have very strong careers. There aren’t many movies that can say it started the careers of Hollywood’s finest like The Outsiders. Usually one or two people will come out of a movie with a bang, but this film seemingly shot the entire cast out of a canon. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
I’m constantly amazed by the popularity of the book itself. S.E Hinton told me during a dinner a few months ago, that last year was its most popular season to date with millions of copies sold. The book is a classic in young American literature. I hear it mentioned with titles such as Catcher In The Rye and Huck Finn. It’s required reading in 70 percent of the schools in the states. In fact, most of my fan mail is generated from new readers discovering both the book and the film for the first time.
The Outsiders seems to have universal appeal because it focuses on young people struggling to fit into society. It’s about teenagers at that crucial point during their lives, when they want to be accepted by their peers… ‘Outsiders’ if you will.
Every school has their own proverbial ‘right or wrong side of the tracks’ and depending on where these kids grow up, it can be difficult fitting in. It’s a perfect metaphor for our society that everyone can relate to. It helps youngsters understand that it’s ok to be different. There’s a tool hidden in a book that helps kids accept their own right of passage. It’s a beautiful message cloaked in ‘coolness.’
Campbell: Do you enjoy speaking to young people about the book and film?
C. Thomas Howell: Yes, it’s one of my favorite things to do. I travel a lot speaking at schools and sharing opinions with classes that have read the book and watched the film. It never ceases to amaze me how affected they are. I feel an instant bond or connection with most of the kids that seemingly adore these characters.
Everyone can relate to somebody in this story whether it’s a Soc or a Greaser. I feel they open up to me when I speak to them directly. It is a delicate thing a child’s soul. I love having the opportunity to connect with them all. You’d think I was helping them, but it’s always me walking away having had my mind blown. It makes me a better person and I feel blessed every time.
Campbell: How did all of the young people get along during the filming?
C. Thomas Howell: There was a real sense of competition set up by Francis and the production between the Greasers and the Socs. They were treated a bit better than we were, intentionally. I can remember during one of the first rehearsals scheduled, we (Greasers) were given plastic binders for our scripts. I was pumped until I realized the Socs were given leather binders for their scripts! There were football and basketball games set up on a regular basis between the Greasers and the Socs. We took it very seriously every weekend. We wanted to pound those guys! It was a great time… I miss those days.
Campbell: What was your favorite part of the movie? Did the burning church scene affect you?
C. Thomas Howell: That’s a tough question for me. It’s equivalent to choosing a favorite child. There are so many sequences that I loved shooting. The rumble was awesome and of course the burning of the church was exciting, but I loved spending my days with Ralph and Matt hanging out together.
Matt was amazing. I wanted to grow up and be just like him. He was the coolest dude on the planet as far as I was concerned. Ralph on the other hand taught me a lot about the process. He was more experienced than I was, so I relied upon him at times to really show me the way around the set. He was 21 and I was 15, so even though we were playing ‘best friends’ there was a pretty big gap between us. I’m sure I made him crazy at times, but for the most part we were pretty tight.
Campbell:How did the death of Ralph's and Matt’s characters affect you and the other cast?
C. Thomas Howell: Clearly the death of Ralph and Matt's characters had a profound affect upon all of us, personally and professionally. I think I can speak for the entire cast when I say they were two of the favorites both on and off the set. Johnny dying meant that Ralph was finished with the movie. He wouldn't be in the rumble. He wouldn't be riding to work with me anymore. He wouldn't be helping me grow as a person or as a professional, at least for the time being.
Ralph was very focused and professional. He took his job seriously and set an example for all of us. I respected him. He was determined to be the best he could be. He understood who he was working with (Francis Ford Coppola) and what that meant.
I, on the other hand, could not have cared less at the time about titles or awards outside of the arena and unless you were a champion cowboy I wasn't impressed. I think that's what Francis enjoyed the most about me. There was no pretense. Ralph and I came from polar opposites of the spectrum. He would prepare every scene with a sense of profound professionalism often rehearsing and rehearsing each and every moment carefully carving out his choices.
As a young person, I lived in the moment. I knew no other way. I committed 100 percent and would give each and every moment everything I had, but at that time of my life I knew nothing about preparation. I was a kid and that's how kids approach acting. I suppose the age difference was probably tougher for Ralph than me. In fact, I know I drove him crazy upon occasion with my sheer adolescence, but he never let it detour his focus or intention.
I love Ralph. He's a Greaser. He’s an amazing father, husband and all around good person. Somehow he never let Hollywood get the best of him. I respect that tremendously. He’s a great example for all. Working with him was an amazing experience for me. In fact one of the best experiences of my entire career.
Now, Matt Dillon was a movie star! I idolized Matt. He had perfect features, the girls loved him and the boys admired him. Hanging with Matt you found that he had an ‘Elvis vibe’ that you can't relate to until you spend time with him. The girls went crazy for him everywhere we went. He was the only one with an established career which meant he had money and experience. He was very generous with a carefree wild like sense about him not unlike Dallas Winston whom he portrayed.
I looked up to Matt... still do. Both of their deaths in the film were iconic and yet so different. Dallas went out with a reckless bang that seemingly could've been avoided if he'd only had reached out to us (the Greasers) before choosing to go on a maniacal rampage.
The death of Johnny affected him uncontrollably, pushing him over the limit, causing him to react in the only way he knew how. ‘Dally’ was his own worst enemy and eventually that's what killed him. I cried for real the day we shot his death scene. I felt alone and helpless. The movie was over... and death is so final.
Campbell: Tom, how did Patrick Swayze’s recent death impact you?
C. Thomas Howell: I'll never forget the day I got the call that Patrick Swayze had passed. ‘Buddy’ is what everyone called him. We had done three films together, The Outsiders, Red Dawn and Grandview USA. Buddy was such an important figure during my formative years. We spent a great deal of time together in a short span.
I met Patrick when I was 12 years old on the set of Urban Cowboy in Houston. My father was the stunt coordinator of that film and his mother, Patsy was the dance choreographer. Little did we know, we'd be spending a good portion of two and a half years together filming some very important projects. I was one of the first emancipated minors in Hollywood, which meant I was basically considered an adult in the eyes of the law.
It also meant that I could beat the California Child Labor Laws and work the hours of an adult which gave me a considerable advantage when auditioning for these parts. My parents both worked and I usually traveled alone when filming and during these productions. Buddy acted like a guardian to me. He really cared about me and looked after me like a brother.
I always admired his talents. The best thing about him was also the most annoying. He was awesome at everything he did, regardless of what it was. Whether he was playing football in school where he was an All-American, writing number one hit songs like “She's Like The Wind” or making hit films like Dirty Dancing which he choreographed himself, it was pretty safe to say he was better than most people at everything.
You could start a butterfly collection and if Buddy was in the room, he'd say something like, “Oh, I went to the Olympics in butterfly catching in 88.” And most likely he did!
He was just so naturally gifted at everything and anything he put his mind to. He had such an infectious laugh that I will never forget. We rode horses together which may be the only thing I had the edge over him on. He taught me how to play beer games, strum a guitar and prepare a scene. Patrick was the one who broke it down for me on paper. He taught me how to read a script and approach the work professionally. He was the one that taught me how to make a ‘choice’ on film. Which is to choose one of about a million ways to play a character.
He had all the talent in the world and yet he never took himself seriously. He was always in a great mood and always wore a smile. This is Buddy in a nutshell for you. His brother Donny told me this story. Patrick had been waiting for the test results from the doctors when the phone rang. He listened intently as they told him that he had pancreatic cancer and probably less than a year to live.
He hung up the phone, looked over to Donny and said, “Shit, God Damn, I gotta' get off my ass and jam.”
That was his reaction. He never felt pity for himself and he never wallowed in sorrow. He was an amazing guy and I will always remember him as my big brother.
I love you, Buddy! Greasers for life!
Campbell: Wow, Tom that was absolutely amazing. Thanks for sharing that beautiful story about Patrick Swayze…Buddy! Your words touch the heart and lead us to your next installment where you will talk to us about your world view and spirituality. Thanks!